Walking the beach at Whitefish Point, where the waters of Lake Superior flow into Whitefish Bay on their way to Sault Ste. Marie, the St. Marys River and Lake Huron, I pondered the origin of the multitude of rocks populating the beach. Unlike oceanic beaches, which are composed mainly of sand, this beach was decorated with rows of small, rounded rocks. Many of them, if my limited geological knowledge is correct, were of igneous origin. Where did they originate? Were they washed up from the lakebed? Did they flow into the lake from rivers in Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan, or were they relics deposited by the glacier as it swept across Canada? I wish I knew more geology.
Later, looking at maps, I learned that the Great Lakes, despite their large size, drain a relatively small area. The Mississippi River and Hudson Bay grab most river drainage in North America between the Appalachians and Rockies. In Ohio, for example, rivers that flow north into Lake Erie are short, whereas those that flow generally south to the Ohio River span about two-thirds of the state.
Lake Superior surprised me with its beauty. The closest I had come to Superior until our recent camping trip was in 1967, when my family visited the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, and Lake Superior, if it was visible at all, was a distant blur in the west. This time we visited our largest lake, the world’s second largest, two times, first at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point and then on a Pictured Rocks boat cruise out of Munising, Mich.
The drive to Whitefish Point took us through land that truly looked like the Northwoods. Spindly evergreen trees and low-lying swampland alongside the roads kept me looking, with no luck, for moose and elk, and the road north to Whitefish Point afforded glimpses through the trees of the sparkling blue water of Whitefish Bay. At Whitefish Point I could see the eastern shore of the bay in the hazy distance, but looking north revealed a seemingly endless expanse of deep blue water.
The Pictured Rocks boat tour took us north in Munising Bay and northeast along the cliffs that take their name from the patterns formed by rock layers and seeping minerals, and I was surprised to see emerald green water in the shallows giving way to brilliant blue where the shallows drop, sometimes dramatically, to deeper water. A sand spit stretched from the eastern shore into the bay, and water that looked shallow enough for wading dropped suddenly to 65 feet deep at one point. Not far north, Superior plunges to depths of hundreds of feet, its greatest known depth being 1,330. A fellow boat passenger claimed that the lake bottom is not entirely mapped and some scientists think it is much deeper.
The Soo Locks Visitors Center includes a display of the five Great Lakes showing their depths and height above sea level, clearly showing Lake Erie’s shallowness compared to the other four. That shallowness is responsible for sudden and violent storm waves sending boats to their doom. “Lake Erie is still regarded as the most treacherous of the Great Lakes because of its penchant for erupting into such violence in so swift a time. Thousands of boats have been lost throughout our history in these waters as a result of extremely sudden storms,” wrote Allan Eckert in “The Conquerors,” his story of conflict on the Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan frontier in the 1760s. Lake Erie is 210 feet deep, but Ontario, which is smaller in surface area, is 602 feet; Huron is 750 feet, and Michigan is 923.
Our trip included a visit to Colonial Michilimackinac, the 18th-century fort on the Straits of Mackinac within site of the suspension bridge that spans the straits, connecting the Lower Peninsula to the Upper. We didn’t visit the fort in 1967, and I’ve longed to see it ever since. Most kids want to see Disney World, but I wanted to see a colonial fort. The fort was established by the French as a place to trade with the natives and was taken by the English at the end of the French and Indian War. While visiting the fort, we attended several reenactments and toured reconstructed buildings, and I enjoyed the view of the straits from the blockhouses.
Now I want to visit Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario and Presque Isle in Erie, Pa., on Lake Erie, also the site of a colonial fort. If I can do so this year, I will have visited all five Great Lakes in the same year.
These five lakes constitute the largest freshwater surface area in the world. They are our great inland sea, and they have borne on their surface over the centuries Indians and Europeans, warriors and soldiers, colonizers and voyageurs, moving across their waters in canoes, batteaux, sloops, schooners, steamships and cargo behemoths. They are a grand sight and a world treasure, draining a large portion of our continent and satisfying the innate human longing for great vistas of water.